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Literature / The Black Swan

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A fantasy novel by Mercedes Lackey, also known as the author of the Heralds of Valdemar and Elemental Masters series.

Once upon a time there was a princess named Odette who was kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Eric von Rothbart and subjected to an unusual curse: she is human only at night under moonlight; by day she is a beautiful white swan.

This novel is not about her. This is about the other swan.

Odile von Rothbart is the dutiful daughter of her father and a rising sorceress in her own right. She keeps his palace without complaint, though she longs for more of her father's approval. Like the Baron, she believes the swan maidens are fickle, faithless creatures who deserve their situation because they have been untrue to their men. But then one day, Odette defies the sorcerer to give her a chance to prove her rehabilitation...

Perhaps the two swans are not so different after all.

Not to be confused with 2010's Black Swan film by Darren Aronofsky, or the 1942 swashbuckler movie by Tyrone Power. Also not related to the Dark Swan novel series by Richelle Mead.


The Black Swan features examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Odile's father has been neglecting his daughter and undermining her self esteem all her life. He also steals her magical energy regularly and uses People Puppets magic on her to further his plans. Few people can blame Odile for killing him.
    • On Siegfried's end of things, Queen Clothilde deliberately raised him so that he wouldn't be fit for the throne. She wants to continue her reign as regent, even if it means having him killed.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Queen Clothilde, and initially Siegfried as well.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Yup. From the selfish prince to the priests. The heroes grow out of it and become sympathetic characters.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • The swan for Odile, an eagle-owl for Baron von Rothbart, and Princess Honoria (one of Siegfried's potential brides at the ball) is garbed as a hawk.
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    • It's unclear if Lackey intended it at the time, but the hawk-princess (also an enthusiastic falconer) is also Foreshadowing. Some time after the book (both in-universe and real time) Honoria received A Day in the Limelight in the short story "Wide Wings", where she body-swaps with a magical hawk (who did an earlier Body Swap herself, and states that she was the latest in a long line of girls to do so) in order to escape her arranged marriage.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Baron von Rothbart. Unsurprisingly, Odile herself begs not to be called "Baroness" at the end.
  • Arranged Marriage: Common, given that the time period is Renaissance...ish. Most of the characters are resigned to the idea as a fact of life, provided their intended mate isn't unbearable: the ones who most strenuously object are Odette (her father promised her mother on her deathbed that Odette could marry for love) and one of the Little Swans, who was going to be sent to an abusive older man.
  • Asshole Victim: The secondary villains of the book end up being killed by Baron von Rothbart's magic and few mourn once they realize what they were plotting. Nobody really mourns for Von Rothbart either.
  • The Atoner: Siegfried, after a nightmare makes him understand how badly he's acted — in general, not just to the gypsy girl, although she is the catalyst. He begins acting much more kindly towards men in the court and a commoner lover of his, worrying his mother who hoped he would never mature into a potential King.
  • Badass Bookworm: Siegfried is an accomplished rider, hunter, and fighter, but he also knows enough Greek to read Aristophanes and other classical authors in the original.
  • Beautiful Tears: One of the freshly-caught swan maidens at the beginning of the book. Odile's inner monologue is full of acid comments about how it looks nice by moonlight but would be hideous in the full light of day.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Odile and Benno have a lighter version of this, mostly thanks to their first meeting being... interesting.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Odette and Siegfried attempt suicide rather than let Von Rothbart separate them. Odile killing Rothbart and then saving them allows them to have their happy ending.
  • Big Fancy Castle: Siegfried's castle is a few times larger than the large Von Rothbart manor.
  • Big Fancy House: The Von Rothbart manor is rather luxurious, boasts a very large pond and extensive manicured gardens and also invisible and highly efficient serving spirits, that are implied to be demonic in nature and bound into servitude by Von Rothbart. They also spy on the inhabitants of the house.
  • Bishōnen: Siegfried is very handsome, taking after his beautiful mother. Even after he stops actively pursuing women, plenty of them throw themselves at him.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: This is how von Rothbart puts an end to Clothilde's wickedness. Her fellow plotter Uwe is caught in it as well but survives long enough to make a full confession and reveal everything. Had Clothilde survived, she would have been humiliated and lost everything she had worked for. Soon after that Odile does the same to him.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Odile casually mentions at one point that wizards are generally warded against ordinary weapons but not gold or silver, and that she and her father carry little silver daggers for spells that require Blood Magic.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Odile mentions learning how to swim early in the book, and how nobles rarely cultivate the skill.In the climax when Siegfried and Odette are drowning, Odile jumps in to save them with the aid of the peasant girls in the flock.
  • Chick Magnet: Siegfried, even after he stops actively pursuing women.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Odile accepts what her father does without question, believing he acts in her best interests. When she considers, for example, that he might have magically changed her appearance or hair color, she takes it as a reasonable precaution — it never even occurs to her to be outraged or disturbed.
  • Costume Porn: Though it's prevalent throughout the book (including for weapons!), Odile's ballgown is the moment. Think Pimped-Out Dress plus Domino Mask plus black swan wings plus jewels all over. (It's the page image). Odile is embarrassed at how over-the-top it is and notes that the only reason it's wearable at all is because it's magic.
  • Courtly Love: Discussed between Siegfried, Benno, and Wolfgang. Benno is particularly convinced that high-class women are to be adored but not touched; neither he nor Siegfried hold lower-class girls in such esteem. They get better.
  • Curse Escape Clause: If Odette can get a man to swear fidelity to her and remain true for a month, the curse will be broken. This is evidently a convenient lie by Von Rothbart — the swan 'curse' is simply a spell, and it ultimately dies with its caster.
  • Dances and Balls: The climax begins at one of these.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Uwe uses his dying breaths to confess to everything he and Queen Clothilde did. Justified given the times: Uwe knew he was dying and wanted to avoid punishment in the afterlife with a Deathbed Confession.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Odile, though in terms of friendship, not love. She'd known the flock for years but had never bothered trying to get to know them (and had assumed they wouldn't have anything interesting to say anyway).
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The misogyny of the times is a key theme, Roma people are so insignificant that even a priest doesn't care if one is raped and later kills herself, and old men marrying young women isn't considered odd if the parties involved like each other.
  • Demoted to Extra: Played With. Odette is still an important character, but her own POV is never given.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: As Odette herself points out, betrayal of a man doesn't warrant imprisonment for life. Not only is it excessive, it gives the swans no reason to repent and change their ways, as Von Rothbart ostensibly intends that they should.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Even after character development, Siegfried's good sense can be hijacked by a beautiful woman. Clothilde employs this to great effect when she announces that he's about to turn 18 and needs to get married, which distracts him so much that he never considers that it's time for her to get off the throne so he can be King.
  • Does Not Like Men: Odile initially. At one point she feels a pang of utter hatred at men and all the wrongs they can do. She has good reasons for it.
  • Dowry Dilemma: Once the curse is broken, Odile realizes the former swan maidens will have difficulty finding husbands without any dower. She provides for their futures by dividing her father's fortune among them.
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Uwe secretly resents Queen Clothilde and has his eyes on the throne for himself. He doesn't get very far with this.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • The gypsy girl. This has a lot of Fridge Brilliance to it, as the Roma have a strong culture around purity and for a Roma girl to lose her virginity — especially to an outsider — before marriage makes her "dirty" and "unclean" by their culture, not to mention an automatic outcast. Medieval culture in general frowned on this too of course.
    • Odette and Siegfried attempt suicide near the climax when it appears that Von Rothbart will separate them.
  • The Dutiful Daughter: Odile to her father; too bad for him he does not appreciate it.
  • Evil Matriarch: Clothilde full stop. She plans to kill Siegfried after he produces a heir and a spare so she can keep on ruling.
  • Exact Words: Siegfried swears to marry the woman who is standing next to him and in specific Rothbart's daughter. Whoops.
  • Fantasy Contraception: At the end, Odile gives Odette two magical necklaces. One is a fertility charm, and the other is "the opposite."
  • Female Misogynist:
    • Odile, as you'd expect for a woman who so closely identifies with her heavily misogynistic father. She firmly believes that women are treacherous and fickle by nature (and she's the rare exception to the rule). It takes her quite a while to grow out of it.
    • Clothilde is the same, often sneering and looking down at other women. Unlike Odile, Clothilde never changes her stance.
  • Fix Fic: For Swan Lake.
  • Forced Transformation: Odette and the rest of the flock turn into swans due to a spell cast by Baron von Rothbart, in contrast to the voluntary shapeshifting of Von Rothbart and Odile.
  • Glamour: Siegfried sees Odile as Odette at the ball. She is unable to tell him otherwise.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Clothilde. She wants to murder her son to keep the throne; unusually for this trope, she's otherwise a good ruler. This fits with the theme of the book which brings up the Madonna-Whore Complex (tastefully at that) and shows that things are never gonna be that clear cut.
  • Go Through Me: Three different occasions — Odette for the flock, Siegfried for Odette, and (awesomely) the flock for Odette and Siegfried.
  • Gratuitous Princess: Not only Odette, but six other princesses as bridal candidates for Siegfried.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Both Odile and Siegfried.
  • Heel Realization: Siegfried again.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Von Rothbart. He believes all women (and most men) are naturally faithless.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Siegfried and Benno, Odile and Odette in the end.
  • Hidden Disdain Reveal: Clothilde secretly despises her accomplice Uwe and plans to be rid of him once Siegfried is out of the way. At the ball, Odile has a chance to observe that Uwe hates Clothilde too.
  • The High Queen: Likely Odette's mother. Once she becomes married to Siegfried and both are crowned king and queen Odette likely will emulate this. On another note, Clothilde presents the world an image of it, but deep down she is anything but.
  • Hooked Up Afterwards: Broadly hinted for Odile and Benno.
  • Hunting "Accident": Subverted with Clothilde's husband, who had one of these genuinely, although she is far from unhappy about it. She tries to encourage her son's hunting pursuits in the hopes that he'll have one too, being aware that any attempt to arrange one would look suspicious.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Odile begins to suspect early on that her father only cares about himself, but she dismisses it because she's been trained from an early age not to question him. She also believes it's not right for a daughter to think such things of her own father.
  • Insufferable Genius: Siegfried (at his mother's careful encouragement), likes to lord his prowess in academic and athletic pursuits over others, leading him to alienate both old and young nobles. He grows out of it.
  • Ironic Hell: Averted for Clothilde, she gets the real thing, Fire and Brimstone Hell if the religious beliefs shown throughout the book are any indication.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Siegfried after quite a bit of character development and a Heel Realization - he later graduates to a truly good guy, after meeting Odette. Benno at times hits this, mostly around Odile, whom he ends up falling for.
  • Karma Houdini: Arguably Siegfried; yes, he was haunted by guilt and shame for a while, but his victim killed herself, with only his priest knowing, so he gets no punishment (not that he likely would anyway, as a noble.) However, considering that it seems the gypsy girl got to become an angel and he was redeemed and made a point of becoming a better person, it's justified.
  • Knight Templar: Von Rothbart presents himself as the self-appointed punisher of faithless women, though in reality it's an excuse to amass power for himself and occasionally indulge his desire to Pay Evil unto Evil.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Siegfried is quite the skirt chaser before he wises up (and even after he reforms, he still has no trouble attracting the ladies), but once he meets Odette, he has zero interest in anyone but her.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Odile before she starts befriending the swans. Siegfried is a subversion, he has a very good friend in Benno. Double subverted in that no one else really likes him until he shapes up.
  • Loners Are Freaks: As Odile starts to spend more time enjoying the company of others and revels in what an incredible pleasure it is she starts to wonder why her father isolates himself from others.
  • Love at First Sight: Siegfried for Odette, and Odette quickly follows him. Interestingly, one mostly sees this happening from Odile's (an outsider's) view, which actually enhances the heartwarming aspects of it.
  • Love Potion: Clothilde used one to marry the King. She contemplates using the same formula on Siegfried or his new bride to keep them infatuated with each other (and thus extend her reign).
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: How most men in the story view women, especially Von Rothbart. The finale suggests people are working on fixing this, especially Siegfried due to his character development revolving around him learning respect for women.
  • Mad Scientist: Von Rothbart is a fantasy example, making Odile the Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.
  • Magic Knight: Von Rothbart can skillfully use both magic and his sword. He is aware of the squishy wizard trope, and consciously acted to avert it this way, along with warding himself against any damage from normal weapons. However, he remains unwarded against gold or silver, so he can use a small silver dagger for blood magic. It's what does him in at the end.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Von Rothbart, Queen Clothilde, and Uwe.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Siegfried's best friend is called Benno and brings to mind Benvolio from Romeo and Juliet.
    • Odette and Odile are variants of the same name.
  • Meet Cute: Odile and Benno's first meeting Crosses the Line Twice into this.
  • The Mirror Shows Your True Self: Von Rothbart has no mirrors in his home because "mirrors show the truth." Used literally on Siegfried in his nightmares; though it was more the mirror shows what you can become if you don't shape up NOW.
  • Missing Mom: Odile has only a father. Losing his wife is hinted to be the Baron's Start of Darkness.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Odile and Von Rothbart. Odile admits that she would probably have done anything for him if he'd just asked...but instead he forcibly bespells her to betray her friend, stealing her own magic to do it, and that's the end of that. Even at the very end after she stabbed him, Odile is such a Well Done Daughter Gal that she would have saved him...if he had asked. But he tried to force her to help him, so she struck him down for good.
  • Moral Myopia: Just about everyone. The sympathetic characters eventually grow out of it as part of their Character Development.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Early in the book, Odile decides to impress her father by cleaning the Great Hall. Since she does it with magic, it's a really cool scene.
  • Mundane Utility:
    • Odile frequently uses her magic to make life more comfortable and convenient, if only because it's the one use of her talents that seems to please her father. Aside from the aforementioned cleaning of the Great Hall, she keeps the floors clean, the clothing washed, and repeatedly uses small magics to great effect to make everyone comfortable as she and the flock travel to Siegfried's kingdom.
    • Her father does the same on a larger scale, enslaving the Silent Ones (the invisible servants) just so they can make his life easier. Of course, he never has to worry about running low on magical energy since he can take it from his daughter and the flock.
  • No Woman's Land: While high born women are treated with respect, they are still considered pawns and chattel by their fathers. Lower class women on the other hand are constantly disrespected and mistreated. Even Clothilde's scheming is largely prompted by her frustration that she would not be allowed to rule in her own right.
    • The finale with Odile being brought onto the council suggests that Seigfried is working on fixing this, if only a little.
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: One of the "little swans" was taken from an arranged marriage to an older man. However, the problem was his cruelty (he was known to beat his wives), not his age. She later marries Siegfried's elderly tutor, who likes her but never dared to hope that a young girl like her would want him.
  • Our Liches Are Different: Siegfried seems to think that the gypsy girl has come back from the dead as a lich to torment him even though he ordered that her corpse be staked and buried at a crossroads to prevent such a thing.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: Siegfried spies the gypsy girl bathing in a river. It doesn't end well.
  • People Puppets: Von Rothbart uses magic to take control of Odile at the ball so that she can seduce and distract Siegfried—or at least, not warn him.
  • Perspective Flip: This is Swan Lake from Odile's point of view.
  • Princess Classic: Odette, with a touch of Rebellious Princess.
  • Proper Lady: Von Rothbart demands it from his daughter. Lady Adelaide in Clothilde's court definitely is one.
  • Rape as Drama: Siegfried, how could you? However, the description can lead one to truly believe Siegfried interpreted the gypsy girl's actions when she tried to run away as being all an act and didn't recognize that he had actually raped her until much later! This leads him to a My God, What Have I Done? moment.
  • Regent for Life: Clothilde's intentions. She'd prefer to be reigning queen, but time and custom won't allow it.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: Odette always wears a coronet. As a swan, she wears a crown-shaped pendant.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: The Baron's view of his magical punishments. It doesn't particularly matter to him whether it's real betrayal, treachery which he enticed or tricked the other person into, or just something that is betrayal from a certain point of view.
  • Scare 'Em Straight: Siegfried's recurring nightmare about the gypsy girl.
  • The Scourge of God: Baron von Rothbart sees himself as this, particularly to the swan maidens and Clothilde.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Odile literally stabs Von Rothbart in the back, though he more than has it coming.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Siegfried in the beginning is very selfish and self-centered, largely through the efforts of his mother, who wants to make him unfit to rule. Later he starts to become a better person, much to the relief of the royal advisers and the others around him.
  • Shrinking Violet:
    • While Odile is quite composed and witty, when she goes to the fete that Clothilde throws she feels very embarrassed and self-conscious because she has grown up in isolation with just her father and the flock as company, and is not used to having so much attention on her. Her over-the-top costume did not help either.
    • This is also Von Rothbart's paper-thin excuse to have all the mirrors covered at the fete.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Odette, Odile and a few of the princesses (Honoria and Evangeline in particular) that Siegfried is to choose from. In fact Clothilde considers Honoria too strong-willed to make a proper and biddable daughter-in-law. Also Clothilde herself is a darker aspect of it.
  • Sinister Minister: Siegfried's priest, upon hearing that he accidentally raped a commoner and possibly drove her to suicide, assigns him a trivial penance and hints that she was asking for it. He is replaced near the end of the book by a Good Shepherd.
  • Spanner in the Works: The gypsy girl. Just think — if Seigfried hadn't encountered her, he truly wouldn't have been suitable for Odette...and thus Rothbart would have won simply because Seigfried wouldn't have truly loved Odette.
  • Squishy Wizard: Averted by Von Rothbart, who according to Odile specifically disdains sorcerers who rely on their magic at the expense of mundane strength and combat skill. To that end, he's kept his body quite fit, is very adept with a sword, and has warded himself against most metals used in weapons although the one he neglects to does him in eventually.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: It's only thanks to Odile's intervention that Siegfried and Odette manage to avert this trope and get their happy ending.
  • Stay in the Kitchen:
    • Von Rothbart's attitude toward his daughter. He is always scornful when Odile attempts to master higher magics but praises her when she applies her magic to domestic pursuits. She is not amused when she realizes this.
    • It could quite possibly be a mixture of not liking competition and being Properly Paranoid on his part, as well as his general misogyny.
  • Swans A-Swimming: Nearly every mention of the flock as swans includes a note about how lovely they are.
  • Title Drop: Three times is Odile referred to as the titular Black Swan, once spoken by one of the swan maidens.
  • Tomboy Princess: Princess Honoria is an avid and expert hawker and hunter, though she also keeps up a front of being feminine and proper.
  • Tsundere: Odile has dere dere as her default mode, but Benno seems to bring out her tsun side.
  • Twice-Told Tale
  • Vampiric Draining: Mages can steal energy from other people to power their spells. Von Rothbart has been doing it to his flock (without their consent) for years.
  • The Von Trope Family: Baron von Rothbart and his daughter, as in the original story.
  • "Well Done, Daughter" Girl: Odile, so very much. She could easily have become Daddy's Little Villain except that Baron von Rothbart either 1) didn't think of it or 2) was unwilling to share power... least of all with a woman.
  • The Wise Prince: By the end of the book Siegfried can be considered this.